Protesters confront astronomers

By Melissa Prentice

Arizona Daily Wildcat

When 2,000 astronomers came to Tucson for a convention they probably did not expect to see Native American singers and environmental protesters but they did.

About 30 protesters, including members of environmental and Native American groups, waited outside the American Astronomical Society conference Tuesday as participants left the Tucson Convention Center for lunch. Native American drum music signaled the group's presence.

Protest organizers said their intent was to "hold University of Arizona astronomers accountable to their peers."

The Mount Graham project has tarnished astronomers in the minds of people around the world," said Gita Bodner, an ecology and evolutionary biology graduate student.

"A lot of astronomers are in opposition of the project for ethical or scientific reasons or would be if they knew more about the issues," she said. "We want the people responsible to be identified and held responsible to their peers."

Giovanni Panza, a protester from Italy, said he believes many astronomers across the country are not aware of the opposition to the project.

A lot of astronomers need to know what the UA is doing," he said. "We don't think the UA is informing them very fairly. We just want to get out the other side."

Vernon Foster, the director of American Indian Movement Arizona, said many Native Americans had joined to protest what they consider the desecration of sacred land.

"We want to send a message to America that Indian people all over support the issue of Mount Graham," he said. "It is not just a sacred mountain to the Apaches, it is sacred to Indian people everywhere."

UA astronomers, who attended the protest and distributed literature from Nature Magazine supportive of the Mount Graham project, said they were aware the protest would take place.

Raymond White, UA astronomy professor and head of the local American Astronomical Society branch, said the conference was closed to the public and organizers had increased security and checked name tags at the door for the first time this year.

"We are going to keep the doors

closed to keep the scientific sessions from being interrupted," he said.

UA professors said they believed the protest would not effectively change the views of other astronomers.

"This type of protest will not be constructive for the environmentalists; high confrontational tactics like this are not effective," said Roger Angel, UA astronomy professor.

He said he believed that most of the astronomers at the conference already knew the issues regarding the project.

Nick Woolf, UA astronomy professor, said the location and tactics of the protest would hinder the protesters' efforts.

"The protest will not be effective because it is well away from where most people are," he said. "I have the impression most of the astronomers think it's a lot of silliness."

White said he believes the UA has earned the respect of its peers and the protest would not change it.

"The numbers of astronomers that are here as our guests are the indicators of our regard," he said.

"Scientists are held accountable every step of the way, technically, scientifically and professionally . Jobs and reputations depend on it," White said. "If we were doing something these (peers) didn't approve of, we wouldn't be able to do it."

But visiting astronomers' opinions varied.

Alex Rudolph, from Harvey Mudd University, said he agreed that the UA has handled the controversy effectively and said he believes the protest was not necessary.

"I feel the UA has been aware of the issues and they have addressed them reasonably," he said. "The astronomers involved have been open to trying to address the issues. It is well past the time to be protesting unless there is something new I am not aware of."

However, Dick Walker from the U.S. Navy Observatory in Flagstaff, said he expected a protest.

He said he believes many astronomers were not aware of the controversy until being confronted by the protesters Tuesday.

Nicole Lloyd, a Cornell University physics student who attended the conference, said she was surprised to see the protestors because she was not aware of the controversy surrounding the Mount Graham telescope project.

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